Ghosts of the Thar Desert: On the frontline of climate change in Pakistan

Ebu squints and her face creases into a dozen lines. She is peering down into her well but the act is pointless. She knows there is nothing down there. In moments of despair, life in Mal Nor, her drought-stricken village in the Thar Desert, seems equally senseless. With the climatic changes under way here, her ancestral lands in this part of south-eastern Pakistan are becoming almost uninhabitable.

“It used to rain a lot before,” she says, speaking in the Marwari language that is specific to this region. “It doesn’t now. It has drastically stopped.”

We stand by her well, near a couple of thatched huts and six sleepy goats that are tethered to a post. Her son and two young women look on; her small grandson, chapatti in mouth, stares, then breaks into tears. The surrounding landscape is sparse: sand, shrubs, the odd teak tree.

Ebu and her family are from an indigenous tribe called the Meghvars, who have lived in the Thar Desert for thousands of years. The land is full of such tribes; pastoral people whose livelihoods have mostly depended on goats and cattle.

Camels, peacocks, snakes and blackbucks share the arid 200,000 sq km expanse, most of which lies across the border in Rajasthan, India’s north-western state.

Scarce rainfall is not new here. Many of the elders describe their age in relation to a chapano (drought). Ebu says she has survived several chapano, at times eating merely grass and ants. These people are born survivors but their days in Tharparkar, as the district is called, might be numbered.

Farmers are losing their crops, cattle and goats because of the drought. Children are starving to death. Villagers are taking their own lives. Near Mithi, Tharparkar’s main town, several locals tell me that rainfall has halved in this region over the past two decades.

And it’s getting hotter. Across a range of indices, the Nasa Earth Exchange (NEX) has found that, over the past 50 years, temperatures in Sindh province, south-eastern Pakistan, have risen by more than 1.5C, around double the global average. Something has changed.


For a decade, I worked as a policy analyst for the UN and other organisations around the world. Reading countless reports at my desk in Rome, I became familiar with Pakistan’s particular vulnerability to natural disasters.

Over a 20-year period between 1998 and 2017, it experienced more than 140 climate-related events, such as hurricanes, flooding and heatwaves, causing more than 10,000 deaths and $3.8bn in losses each year through damage.

When I left the UN a few years ago, it was to write independently about hunger, climate change and other development challenges. In January, I decided to visit Pakistan to try to learn more about the lives of some of those most vulnerable to global warming.

The road that I take from Digri to Mithi shimmers in the heat. It was improved recently, with coal money, though the funds mostly went into constructing an open-cast coal mine and power station, located 70km away. The complex, known as Thar Coal Block II, was developed as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $60bn energy and infrastructure scheme that is under way across Pakistan. It began supplying electricity to Pakistan’s national grid in June.

Despite the asphalt-softening heat, which is now killing animals and people in southern Pakistan, the country’s efforts to extract fossil fuels from the ground are accelerating, generating ever higher carbon emissions.

For years, Pakistan’s population and manufacturing industries have suffered blackouts. CPEC offers a means to resolve the country’s energy crisis and, like all developed countries have done in the past, it helps both Pakistan and China pursue their fossil-fuelled industrial growth.

Banaras Khan, who is supporting climate-smart agriculture in Pakistan for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Islamabad, tells me the recurrent drought phenomenon in Tharparkar “gained momentum after 2013 and is becoming more frequent”. He says that a recent climate analysis the FAO conducted for Sindh province shows this can be attributed to climate change.

On the ground in Tharparkar, the land is so barren that even pasture cannot grow. Along the roadside, there are carcasses of animals, abandoned and atrophying, their skin caved-in between their bones. Locals here say “your livestock are like your diamonds” — a coping strategy when all else fails. When their animals starve, the owners are crushed.

A local historian called Bharomal Bheel tells me he visited a village called Jorvu, and saw a man who had just lost 300 sheep. Starving and dehydrated, they were killed by diseases. He was “completely broken”, crying in despair, says Bheel.


Alexander More, a climate historian at Harvard University, says Pakistan exemplifies how climate change can drive existing weather patterns to new extremes. “When we think of climate change, we usually think of global warming. But the reality is that, while temperatures are going upwards, with it also comes a pattern of increasing climate extremes. Southern Pakistan is an example of a place that is experiencing increasing droughts.”

Across the whole country, the risks are growing. The Himalaya, Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountain ranges in the north of the country hold 5,000 glaciers. Temperature rises or earthquakes can trigger what are called glacial lake outburst floods, or GLOF, which threaten populations living in the valleys and plains below.

In 2010, the Booni Gol outburst killed almost 2,000 people and destroyed 1.6 million homes. Thousands of acres of farmland were damaged. Today, analysts say seven million people in Pakistan are vulnerable to such floods.

The effects of rising temperatures are equally ominous for Pakistan’s lowland populations. The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report described how a global rise of 2C would have appalling consequences for South Asia’s megacities. By 2050, Karachi will have an estimated population of 24 million, and be likely to experience “deadly heatwaves” of 49C on an annual basis.

Sindh province was once at the heart of the great Indus Valley civilisation, which emerged more than 6,000 years ago, and thrived by channelling water via canals and dykes.

Today, high population levels and poor water management mean that Pakistan is running out of fresh water. The Indus River Basin Authority believes the country will suffer a shortage of 37 billion litres by 2025. These concerns will be intensified by potential “water wars” between India and Pakistan, should current tensions between the neighbouring countries escalate.

In the Thar Desert, communities already face an existential threat: there is nowhere near enough food to go round. Hundreds of thousands of people in Tharparkar, more than half the district’s population, face acute food insecurity, meaning they experience hunger but can go entire days without eating anything. Some 400,000 children under five are acutely malnourished, according to the FAO. More than 500 children died from hunger-related causes last year.

As crops fail, and livestock wither and die, the communal nature of life that has bound people in the Thar Desert together for so long is breaking apart. Villagers can no longer afford to stay on their lands. Ebu says that “most healthy men” have had to migrate to cities or towns where they hope to find work as day-labourers. “When they return,” she says, “they only bring things for their own family.”
Others complain in similar terms. Bheel calls it a “drought in community”. Perhaps it is this — the sense of togetherness evaporating — that causes most unease. “We are constantly worried,” says Ebu. “We’re in a constant state of anxiety. It’s as if we are drowning.”

As with most slow-motion humanitarian crises, the issue is not that there are no solutions — but that they require political will, finance and attention. For dry-land communities like those of the Thar Desert, technologies such as land terracing, drip irrigation and mulching can save water and preserve soil quality, sustaining the livestock and crops on which people depend. Such steps would mean major financing as well as government and international support.

The broader need to meet Pakistan’s energy requirements is also not unattainable; billions of dollars of investment are pledged at climate conferences every year. Some of this money could and should be invested in developing countries like Pakistan, enabling them to shift their fossil fuel-powered growth models towards renewable energy alternatives. Overall, it is a massive project and, in relative terms, there is very little time. It’s hard to feel optimistic.


One evening, Bheel tells me several tales, from legend and personal experience, recalling djinns (ghosts) and deos (spirits) and the alarming feats of the goddess Aver Devi. “My grandmother’s ghost stories were the worst,” he says, “because they seemed so true.”

Reality is beginning to attain something of these stories.
Late one night, with a guide, I visit a village in the desert. The moon and stars are bright enough to reveal our shadows on the sand. In the monochrome light, the landscape resembles a blackish sea. In silence, we come across some abandoned thatched huts; black shapes in the darkness.

We find other huts. Two figures emerge. A man says his eight brothers and their families have left this village. His is the last family left. It is a ghost village. Soon, because of climate change, places like these will be uninhabited, and the desert wind will be the only sound; a long, drawn-out gasp of what once was.

Financial Times Magazine

The Jewellers of Jaipur

Sir, want precious stones?” a man asks me, quietly. I am on the Johari Bazaar, one of Jaipur’s most notable thoroughfares, a straight colonnade screened above by the facades of adjoining houses. Everything is painted orange, terracotta and burnt pink. The man wears white shalwar kameez, and an air of indifference. He unfolds white paper, revealing colourful stones. “Emeralds, sapphires, rubies …” he says. He is among one of several groups of men gathered in this area; they’re local dealers, discussing prices. The avenue, whose name means gem shop road, is lined with dozens of shops displaying magnificent necklaces, bracelets and rings.

My encounter reveals something of why the “Pink City”, in northern India, has just been named a Unesco world heritage site. Jaipur was selected partly on the basis of its urban plan, featuring colonnaded streets and public squares called chaupurs. The city also contains architectural wonders: the City Palace, Amber Fort, and Water Palace among them. Walking past the pink sandstone Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds), Jaipur’s five-storey honeycomb-like wall of 50-odd protruding windows with latticework frames, miniature cupolas and painted motifs, is a breathtaking experience.

Along with these ceremonial court buildings, Jaipur was constructed for commerce. As Unesco states, the city was “designed to be a commercial capital”. Today, dealers and vendors animate the streets. And in back alleys and second-storey workshops, curious visitors will find artisans working on ornamental crafts. Unesco recognises how Jaipur “has maintained its local commercial, artisanal and cooperative traditions to this day”.

Jaipur is famous for its wood-block printing, tailoring, carpets, wood and metalwork. There are many contemporary boutiques, such as Teatro Dhora, selling elegant clothes, men’s handkerchiefs, notepads, leather handbags and more at (relatively) affordable prices. But it is in jewellery, in particular, where the city has historically excelled.

After founding Jaipur in 1727, Jai Singh II is said to have organised a procession through the city where local crowds threw precious stones over him and his entourage. He was infatuated with jewels. Under his patronage, Jaipur started to become a centre for jewellery, attracting artisans and traders from afar. Today, the city is home to hundreds of thousands of jewellers and dealers.

“People here are obsessed with jewellery,” says Akshat Ghiya, owner and creative head of Tallin Jewels, a boutiquebrand whose workshop is on the Johari Bazaar. “It’s almost a compulsion here for people to buy jewellery every few months. Ever since the Raja [Jai Singh II], jewellery has flourished here. Jaipur has become the largest stone-cutting centre in the world.”

By talking to dealers, visitors can find opportunities to meet jewellers, like Narenda, who I chat with in his second-floor workshop off the Chand Pol Bazaar. He examines a jewel on his workspace, while sitting cross-legged on the floor. “When I go to temples, I get a lot of ideas,” he says. On the wall is a framed picture of three Hindu gods, draped with a garland of orange marigolds. Below, at street level, as ever, there’s the din of motorbikes and rickshaws. Through the window, the Nahargarh Fort is faintly visible on the hills beyond the city.

Narenda works in the traditional Kundan Meena style. Kundan jewellery is unusual in using wax within the gold or silver frame, as well as incorporating glass and painted illustrations, of white, green, red or blue floral motifs. The results have an ethnic feel but when used in an ensemble of necklace, tiara, earrings and rings, Kundan can look bling. Which can be the point: the style is popular among wealthy brides from Mumbai and Delhi.

Kundan Meena jewellery is intricate and inlaid with enamel in a variety of colours.

Kundan Meena jewellery is intricate and inlaid with enamel in a variety of colours

While rich Indians visit Jaipur for its gems, the city offers jewellery for anyone. Backpackers and tourists can find inexpensive, quality pieces in dozens of shops around the city. It requires patience and a discerning eye.

Visitors can develop their knowledge of Indian jewellery at the Amrapali museum on Ashok Marg Road. It is an extraordinary collection of jewellery, displayed over two small floors. A mesmerising foot-long, 19th-century gold braid, from Tamil Nadu, engraved with Hindu gods and goddesses, is just one of hundreds of spectacular pieces.

Amrapali also manufactures jewellery at scale. Its 1,500 “factory -floor” jewellers produce pieces that are mostly sold to other companies at a range of price points. The goldsmiths tend to come from Bengal, while stone-cutters have historically come from local Muslim communities, whereas gem-traders are Marwaris, a Rajasthani caste. Most of Jaipur’s jewellers are men, though efforts are being made to employ more women. Tarang Arora, the son of one of the founders of Amrapali, stresses that the company is committed to ensuring its workers’ welfare.

To some extent, the Amrapali factory and several others in Jaipur are trying to compete with Chinese industry. When it comes to economies of scale, though, Jaipur would probably lose out. Plus, it may make more sense for the city’s jewellery producers to associate themselves with Jaipur’s “brand” as a hub for handicrafts.

This is where Tallin, Akshat Ghiya’s workshop-boutique, is well positioned. The company employs around 20 artisans. The jewellers work in an upper-floor space along the Johari Bazaar. Tallin makes traditional Rajasthani and art deco-inspired pieces. Anyone can visit to see the craftsmen in action and pour over their glittering pieces in Akshat’s office-showroom.

Such an intimate environment must be conducive to good craftsmanship. One of Tallin’s jewellers, Srikant, talks about how his trade has allowed him to connect to his artistry, his gift, even. He adds that for him and his fellow Bengalis, crafting jewellery offers something else: “It brings us honour.” No doubt this is something the people at Unesco would like to see preserved.

 

This article was published in the Guardian

All photography by Christopher Wilton-Steer

 

 

The Artisans of the Walled City of Lahore

Perched outside his workshop in Lahore’s Walled City, Mohamed Tahir plays a harmonium while watching the passing melee. The melancholy sounds of the instrument are barely audible over the din of motorbikes and wheel cutters, but still they evoke something of Lahore’s history, a world that lives on beneath the dust and frantic rhythms of everyday life.

“The piano and harmonium were brought here by the Britishers, but drum-making began during the Mughal period,” Tahir says. Wrapped in a black cotton shawl, the elderly man has been making musical instruments on this street for over 70 years.

Like many artisans in the Walled City, Tahir’s skills have been passed down the generations, surviving the turns of history that have ruptured this region. With changing traditions and market competition, though, Lahore’s craftsmen face an uncertain future. Yet some initiatives are offering these artisans an opportunity to craft a profound transformation upon the city.

There are hopes that the work of these craftsmen and women will revive a city that has been passed over by tourists for decades. Lahore rivals Delhi for its heritage, yet receives a tenth of the visitors. Plus it’s a relatively short drive from the city to the country’s breathtaking northern mountain ranges. For travellers, the lure of the city has been overshadowed, it seems, by the drama of Pakistan’s history.

When Pakistan became a sovereign state in 1947, Mohamed Tahir’s family moved from Amritsar, in India, to Lahore, inside the new Pakistani border. The period is known as Partition. Seven million Hindus and Sikhs left for India. Over 10 million Muslims crossed into Pakistan, including many of Lahore’s current artisans. Theirs is a lineage disrupted by politics, whose continuity lies in their craft. Though in the upheaval surrounding the new state of Pakistan, a great deal was lost.

For over a thousand years, Lahore thrived by welcoming all sorts; Chinese travellers, Sufi saints from Ghazni, Portuguese priests, Italian painters and Armenian ironsmiths. Lahore reached the height of its splendour during the Mughal period, from 16th to 18th centuries. The Emperors of this time – Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurungzeb – were generous patrons of the arts and crafts. The most impressive Mughal architecture, such as the Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque, borrowed from Islamic, Persian and Hindu traditions. The Walled City became Lahore’s commercial heart: a dense maze of alleyways and markets, whose karkhana (workshops) thronged with thousands of weavers, ironsmiths, masons, miniaturists, astrolabe makers, jewelers, cobblers and carpet weavers. Together they sustained imperial trade and supplied a burgeoning society with their material needs.

Many craftsmen are still at it. Walking through the bustling Kasera bazaar, the blacksmiths are impossible to ignore: standing at their workshops which open onto the street, they press blades and other tools onto sharpening wheels, prompting the shrill, piercing sound of drills and sprays of sparks like fireworks. Here, in his tiny workshop, I meet Affif Mughal, a blacksmith whose forefathers made swords for the Mughal court and aristocracy. With the decline of the Sikh Empire in the 19th century, his family switched to knives and scissors. Today, Affif’s scissors are used by Lahore’s tailors and cobblers. These artisans comprise an ecosystem. Such relationships are a remnant of former, more prosperous days, when dozens of craft industries were bound together.

Lahore’s artisans are proud of their heritage. Down a back alley off the Moti bazaar, on the floor of a tiny room, I meet Fazal Durrani, a shoemaker in the Walled City since 1981. “The Mughal Emperors had their own cordwainers (cobblers),” he says, waving a leather sole under his work lights. “I am continuing this tradition”.

With the decline of the Mughal Empire, many of Lahore’s crafts diminished. The artisans’ fortunes were invigorated under the muscular reign of the Sikh, Ranjit Singh, but by the time the British seized the city, in 1846, new patterns of trade threatened the old professions. Over the ensuing decades, British manufactured imports, such as umbrellas and bicycles, began to appear in Lahore’s shops. With a new political economy came changes in consumption patterns.

Rudyard Kipling was in Lahore at the time. When the author depicted the Walled City in his 1891 story, The City of the Dreadful Night, he described a place of “fetid breezes”, lepers and corpses, a city “of Death as well as Night”. As a champion of the British Empire, Kipling has always faced criticism. Orwell labeled him a “jingo imperialist”. Today, some will see Kipling’s portrayal of the Walled City as ‘orientalising’; that he rendered the place otherworldly and uncivilized, its people listless, and therefore, by implication, worthy of subjugation.

But the ‘creative destruction’ of British-led capitalism was already imposing itself upon many of Lahore’s old trades. From the time of the Raj onwards, Lahore’s artisans have faced stiff competition from market forces, while many fail to adapt to changing tastes. One craft struggling to survive today is hookah pipe production. Passing stalls displaying colourful dupattas and saris, I walk around the Wazir Khan mosque, where Kipling set his story. Here, I meet Umer Saleem, a large, thoughtful man, and one of the Walled City’s last hookah pipe makers.

“There used to be 30 workshops here. Now there are only three,” he says. Saleem’s family began making smoking pipes three generations ago. He describes the history of the hookah, invented by the Persian physicist, Abu’l-Fath Gilani, in the 16th century. He proclaims their social value, as a way of “bringing people together” and “taking time”. But he is not optimistic. A 2013 law banned their use in cafés and restaurants. Also, he concedes, “the new generation prefers cigarettes”. Saleem has suffered a 75 percent decline in sales.

In recent decades, the Chinese have taken up where the British began. Chinese factories supply everyday items to Lahore’s markets, at prices that undercut local producers and capture domestic markets. Up two flights of stairs, in a hot, bare room in the Langa Mandi quarter, I meet a metalworker called Muhammad Muzamil. Working on the floor beside two other craftsmen, he is feeling the pinch. “China has introduced cheaper goods. They have their own factory designs, but I believe hand-made is better,” he says, while hammering a pattern into a steel buffet lid. Muzamil’s great-grandfather started their business, in Delhi, but he is not passing his craft onto his children. “It is too up and down” he says.

If the fate of Lahore’s artisans seems bleak, there are grounds for hope. Several organisations are supporting craftsmen. The Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA), for example, wants to highlight the influence that artisans have had on the city. “Old Lahore was a place where people were identified with their skills. Places still bear the names of the craftsmen who worked there, like Bowmakers Street,” says Kamran Lashari, the WCLA Director General. The WCLA has offers leases to designated shopkeepers to sell local crafts along Food Street, a prominent avenue near the crimson walls of the Badshahi Mosque. The WCLA has also been giving free day tours for visitors around the Walled City and the Lahore Fort since 2012, and began organizing night tours last year. Passing areas such as the Lohari Davarza (Blacksmiths’ Gate), the walks navigate places where the Lahore’s craft history lives on today.

Over the past decade, the WCLA has partnered with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) to conserve some of Lahore’s most remarkable buildings. Initially, AKTC restored the walls and mashrabiya of the old havelis along the Shahi Guzargah, the Royal Trail. Processions of Mughal Emperors coming from Delhi would follow this road, entering Lahore via the Delhi Gate and travelling on to the Lahore Fort. Craftsmen under AKTC have also conserved the last remaining Mughal-era bathhouse, the Shahi Hammam, as well as the walls, minarets and façade of the Wazir Khan mosque. Both structures were built in the 17th century.

AKTC’s most ambitious project is the restoration of the 450 metre-long and 16-metre high Mughal-era ‘Picture Wall’ in the Lahore Fort. Constructed in the early 17th century, it was exquisitely decorated by hundreds of artisans under Shah Jahan. The result was an artistic triumph; a monumental screen of over 110 panels comprising glazed tiles, faience mosaics and frescoes. Some of these depict figurative images, such as angels and dragons. These motifs, now brought back into focus through the AKTC restoration, reveal what was an outward-looking Empire, receptive to eastern and western ideas.

These days, walls are rarely the subject of unanimous praise, nor do they elicit a sense of pluralism. But this one inverts the idea. Dozens of young female and male architects, fresco painters, chemists, digital conservators and historians are collaborating on this assignment. The project may take several years, but the conservators are a pool of enthusiasm. They discuss the wall’s Persian, Italian and Chinese influences. The older master craftsmen, busy restoring tiles, filigree and brickwork, are equally excited. One evening, as the sun is setting behind the nearby tomb of Ranjit Singh, I climb up to the highest point of scaffolding along the wall. There, I meet Ala Uddin, a master mason. He is laying bricks. “I love this wall,” he says, his face literally glowing in the orange light. “It brings our culture and traditions to life.”

Of course, restoring Lahore’s historic monuments will not tackle the structural economic factors threatening the city’s artisans. But these projects are employing craftsmen in numbers not seen in decades. These artisans are reviving Mughal techniques, while also working with a diverse community of practitioners trained in the latest methods. The results will attract more visitors to Lahore, generating income that can be reinvested into further restoration work. The project may even awaken a demand for craftsmanship among wealthy Lahoris looking to embellish their homes.

Yet the restoration work is really about something deeper. If the Picture Wall displays Lahore’s cosmopolitan past, the way it is being restored suggests a pluralistic present rarely found in contemporary narratives of Pakistan. The multidisciplinary team of craftsmen and conservators, from different generations, gender and ethnic origin are, in their small way, embodying the ‘can do’ spirit that animated the city four centuries ago.

My last interview in Lahore was with an elderly master mason, Mohammad Ramzan. It was after dusk, and the end of his day. What he said about the Picture Wall, and the restoration effort, lingered in my memory: “It is a way of understanding our identity.”

 

A version of this article was published in the FT Weekend

Journey Through Southern Tunisia

In the cool interior of his troglodyte cave, Ali Diglish is speaking at full tilt. The 26-year-old guide from Chenini barely draws breath. Like much of the country these days, this Berber village in southern Tunisia doesn’t get many visitors, so Diglish is seizing his chance.

This article featured in the Travel section of the Financial Times Weekend edition. The full article can be found by clicking on the link here. 

FT Weekend

 

The Artisans of al-Darb al-Ahmar: Life and Work in Historic Cairo

It is midday. The sun is high and hot, yet the street is alive. Kids play football. Goats, tethered to a wall, observe stoically. Motorcyclists thread past on bleating, smoky mopeds. The air is filled with dust, flies, and lingering smells of rubbish. I am in a Cairo neighbourhood that few foreigners visit these days: al-Darb al-Ahmar. Walking among the many mosques and madrasas, I hope to learn more about the artisans that work there.

“Whatever manufactured items there are in the world”, wrote the Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi in 1671, “the poor of Cairo get hold of them, set them out and trade in them. They get by in this fashion.” Nearly three hundred and fifty years later, this tradition lives on in al-Darb al-Ahmar. This extraordinary neighbourhood of 100,000 people, which lies to the south-east of central Cairo, is said to be home to a thousand workshops; the place is teeming with artisans, crafting everything from tents, books, boxes and brass lanterns to glass bowls and silk carpets. They trade what they can, and they get by.

The Street of the Tentmakers captures this vibrant, commercial spirit. Built in 1650 as an arcade, this covered street is a succession of workrooms whose interiors are lined with colourful, decorative textiles. From his cubic cavity in the Ottoman-era wall, a weaver called Hasan says that al-khayyamiya, the craft of tentmaking, goes back to Pharaonic times. Some of today’s weavers are descended from the families who would produce the kiswa, the fabric that covered the great stone at Mecca, as well as tents, cloths and saddles for those setting out on pilgrimage to Mecca. The sultan, sitting nearby on a balcony above the ancient Fatimid gate of Bab Zuwayla would watch the caravan depart in procession.

Perhaps Hasan notices my pleasure at imagining this sweep of history, alive today. “We are lucky to be born here”, he says, with a smile. “It is a heritage site, and a spiritual place. If you wanted to create a neighbourhood like this, you could not. It is impossible to conceive of all the elements that you find in al-Darb al-Ahmar.”

The district’s heritage is indeed remarkable. The area, covering just under a square mile, contains over 40 monuments built during successive Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman eras, spanning a thousand year period. In collaboration with the government, many of these, such as the Aqsunqur Mosque and Amir Khayrbak complex, have been restored by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). Such efforts are crucial to preserve Cairo’s Islamic heritage and attract more visitors and custom to the neighbourhood.

In al-Darb al-Ahmar, the only foreign faces I see are young Muslims from Indonesia. They are attending the nearby al-Azhar University, a centre for Islamic learning. Western tourists currently avoid Cairo due to security concerns; there have been several Islamist militant attacks on Egypt’s Christian minority in recent years. Walking around the neighbourhood, however, I feel perfectly safe. Countless old men, seated at the ubiquitous qahwa where they drink glasses of coffee or tea, welcome me with the words “ahlan wa sahlan”.

At times the fortunes of al-Darb al-Ahmar waver with Egypt’s. Next to the 14th century Aslam al-Silahdar Mosque, I enter a thread-dying house. I meet Salama, who has been a dyer for 73 years. In the darkness, figures are hauling skeins of cotton out of a stone bath of black dye. Dark steaming liquid streams across the floor. Salama tells me how, under the revolutionary regime of Nasser, business was good: “the Russians would give us weapons, and we would give them cloth.” But in 1967 things changed after the disastrous Six-Day War against Israel. Then after Nasser came Sadat who liberalised the economy, opening it up to domestic and foreign investment. Cheaper goods entered the local market. Small producers in the neighbourhood were hit. Many lost their jobs. Families were torn apart. For a time, says Salama, it was “chaos”.

Most craftsmen from the neighborhood are physically and mentally immersed in their history, reviving elements of their culture each day. I witness a clear example of this inside the workshop of two bookbinders near Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque. Aslam and his colleague bind 150 books a day. Along their workspace are piles of half-bound books. They are currently binding a tafsir, a commentary on the Qur’an, written in 630 hijri (1232 CE). As I leave, Aslam smiles and describes one of their ‘special’ books, about Alexander the Great, first produced on papyrus in 330 BC.

When the Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi visited Cairo in the 17th century, he recorded 20 workshops employing 300 carpet-makers. “They weave silk carpets and prayer-rugs, in praise of which the tongue falls short” he wrote. In a small room in the backstreets of the nearby Manshiyat Nasser slum, of all places, that skill is alive today. It takes two people six months to produce a two-by-three-metre silk carpet. They sit on a low bench, facing the vertical loom with a cartoon of the finished design above them. Their technique, says one plainly, has been employed for over 1500 years.

Near to al-Darb al-Ahmar is Cairo’s sprawling ‘City of the Dead’, where locals have been buried since the Muslim conquest of Egypt more than 1,300 years ago. Today, because of rapid urban growth, a quarter of a million Cairenes live among the shrines and tombs. In this living graveyard I meet an ex-boxer turned glassblower called Hasan ‘Hodhod’. Hodhod says his work has been associated with ghosts, mystery and myths that go back to King Solomon deceiving the Queen of Sheba. In an attempt to dissuade him from taking up such arduous work, his father tried to spook him, describing glassblowing as “the craft of the spirits”.

It is dusk. A bread-delivery boy cycles by, seated upright, balancing a five foot-long tray of freshly baked aish baladi on his head. Moments later I meet Mohamed, a third-generation lantern-maker. Our conversation reveals the influences that history has had on the craft sector. Inside his workshop, half-finished brass and iron lanterns rest on shelves and tables, dimly lit by a single bulb. To make the ornate metal pieces, Mohamed draws on Cairo’s heritage, using Mamluk, Coptic, Andalusian and Moroccan designs. Mohamed says that “now is the most difficult time”, as the prices of raw materials have risen yet there are fewer tourists, who were his main buyers. Yet he finds an unexpected positive: Syrians have come, because of the war. They started forming workshops, for upholstering beds and producing clothes. Through their enterprise, he reflects, they have contributed to the local economy. “They have helped us a lot”, he says.

Towards the end of my time in al-Darb al-Ahmar, I garner another perspective, which suggests that craftsmen possess a degree of resilience against historical events. I ask an 81-year-old cloth dyer what impact the Arab Spring-inspired 2011 revolution and subsequent counter-revolution have had on artisans. “For us, nothing has changed,” he replies, “except the President. Our lives, the food we eat, the money we earn – it is the same.”

It seems history laps over this place in layers, like the lines of a tide. The imprint is felt, but only lightly. Events are merely absorbed into the welter. Amid so much life, death, creation and renewal, the sense of flow, or cyclicality, is palpable. I believe these artisans are at the heart of this. Despite the tumult in their country and the wider region, they get by.

 

 

 

Harry Johnstone

 

A version of this article was published in The Guardian.

The exhibition – ‘The Artisans of al-Darb al-Ahmar: Life and Work in Historic Cairo’ – is being held at the Royal Geographical Society, Exhibition Road, London, between Thursday 22 March and Tuesday 24 April 2018. Admission is free.

The Orwell Essays

Orwell-Essays-1Brian Sewell, who died in 2015, was primarily known as an art historian. Opinionated, snooty and disdainful of popular culture, he became something of an ironic celebrity in his later years. Between 1996 and 2003, he was a columnist for the Evening Standard with a brief to “express opinion on any serious matter that interested me”. The Orwell Essays presents a selection of these articles, on subjects as diverse as Zionism, fox hunting, pornography, bear baiting, homelessness and the Elgin Marbles.

Throughout these essays, Sewell challenges “political correctitude”. On spoken English, for example, he resents the “inverse snobbery” of the idea that “the ugly accents of Liverpool and Birmingham are better than a received pronunciation that reflects the literary form and is intelligible worldwide”. He describes the hypocrisy of “blinkered” MPs who ignore the cruelty of the poultry and livestock industries, but support a ban on hunting as a “politically correct absurdity”. He defends Enoch Powell.

Sewell emerges as compassionate, and committed to improving the welfare of the poorest in society, as well as animals. He empathizes with London’s beggars, and challenges the government line that young people on the street “should not have left home” as “unrealistic”, given the complex domestic tragedies many of these adolescents face. He attacks Tony Blair for seeing “the homeless, the vandal and the mugger as a single problem”. In several essays, Sewell abhors industrial animal farming. He laments the living conditions of battery hens: “reared in huge barrack sheds without windows, as many as 30,000 in each, the noise, stench and heat unbearable to any human being”; the birds are duly “slaughtered on the 42nd day of their wretched lives”.

Sewell possesses foresight on issues such as housing and foreign policy. “To save our countryside”, he writes, “we must first regenerate our cities.” Urban planning should focus on building upwards, rather than outwards. Attractive high-rise buildings with “airy” apartments, he believes, would be more convenient for city-dwellers while protecting the countryside from the encroachment of “wasteful garden cities like Welwyn, Letchworth, Harlow and the execrable Milton Keynes”. In a piece written in October 2001, he is sceptical of intervention in Afghanistan, asking whether any “replacement government” and “democratic elections” could work.

These articles are refreshingly honest, fearless, insightful and humane. Sewell was awarded the Orwell Prize for them in 2003.

The Times Literary Supplement